Last Updated: 05/12/2003
Interview with Professor Amr Abdalla
Amr Abdalla talks to Joseph Schumacher about conflict resolution and prevention, the world of Islam and the problems of the Middle East.
Professor Amr Abdalla,an Islamic adherent who regards himself as a moderate, teaches at George Mason University, Washington DC. He teaches in the peace operation policy programme and at the Graduate School of Islamic and social sciences. He gained his Ph.D and masters from George Mason University, both in conflict resolution. He was born and brought up in Egypt where he became a prosecuting attorney and it was this that made him wonder about other ways of looking at conflict in addition to the legalistic judicial way, and he feels lucky to have gone to the United States right at the time when the field of conflict resolution was just starting. He has never regretted that move from judicial practice to conflict resolution
JS: So is conflict resolution still in its infancy?
No, I think it started 20 years ago. Although its still going through so much experimentation, it doesn't cease to grow and change and adjust. There are many reasons for that, one is that this field is an eclectic one - we draw upon psychology, legal studies, cultural studies, sociology, international relations etc. Everyone can contribute something to the field. Because of that it seems to always to grow with new ideas and theories that might originate in their own initial discipline but then inter link with conflict resolution.
JS: In the west there still are many negative stereotypes of Islam about the role of women. Have the non-Muslim world misinterpreted Islam and gender issues?
I am glad you touched on this idea of misinterpretation, and yes of course we still have a lot of misinterpretation, as a matter of in fact we hardly have any new interpretations to deal with modern life. We are still relying heavily on two ways of looking at our religion: the legalistic interpretation of years ago, sometimes going back one thousand years and the other is the traditional mix of religion with other elements of culture. These have become so molded with religion, to the point people don't really know the difference so that when they deal with women's' issues they are trying to use their traditional ways of looking at how women interact in society yet they try to sanction this interpretation religiously. But such religious sanctions are often biased as they are based upon patriarchal modals, which dominated the legal work in Islam for a long time. So yes I think we are still struggling, but the good news is we have a new wave of what I call Islamic modernism. Those are people who are not skeptical about their religion, they are very pious when it comes to Islam, however they are willing to take on this move to modernization and reinterpret aspects of their faith including the role of women. By the way the majority are women, I'll give you some names such as Dr Aziza el-Hibri al Gribhal who is a law professor at the University of Richmond, and Dr Amina Wadoud, both of them are good examples of female Muslim scholars who are really trying to modernize and reinterpret.
JS: After the 2001 September 11 attacks, as well as the anger and grief, there was a lot of talk of Americans trying to reexamine relationship of the US with other cultures, especially with the Muslim world. How has that worked out?
I think America is going through a period of self search, Americans are trying to understand their position in the world, especially the towards the Muslim world. In the process they are confused and not sure, but I know that Americans by nature are truth-seekers, they are trying to find out what is going on and how to deal with it. But unfortunately there are still so many forces, which are negative. For example before September 11th, because of political correctness, no one would dare go on TV or radio and say this religion is bad, or this prophet is a maniac or these people are all terrorists - you do don't that, it offends too many people. Unfortunately after the September 11th attacks some of the right wing Christians began to insult Islam and the prophet Mohammed publicly and they had no qualms about it, they feel they don't have to be apologetic about it. So what I'm concerned about, is now the public realm allows room for insulting Islam, which is being slandered by a small group of Christians who are so vocal.
JS: How does the case of Armin Lawal, the young unwed mother in Nigeria who has been sentenced to be stoned to death, affect Islam's image?
Actually there is an effect on Muslims and non-Muslims over such a case. The effect of Muslims is to raise the question how are we going to implement our religion in modern times, because some people will take religion to extremes and say this woman committed adultery so we should stone her. This in itself is a very highly debated issue amongst scholars and I think it just shows us where we are as Muslims, we are too stuck and we don't know how to move forward. Our religion, in my opinion as a moderate, has an important potential to be a great force for development and equality and for freedom and justice, but we don't know how to deal with it and we need to learn. There are efforts in this direction but those efforts are still in their infancy. As for these cases they can be exploited and exaggerated, as for this case, of course it is a very sad story, and if its true they want to stone this women, as a Muslim I don't agree this is ok or according to my religion. I'm wondering where is the man who was responsible for getting her pregnant. I think he's successfully denied responsibility and escaped trial.
JS: I think he's successfully denied responsibility and escaped trial.
JS: In your presentation to the Al Hewar centre about conflict resolution you talk about the necessity to take into account culture, specifically, the power of religion to be a force for peace, citing as an example Islam in the conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi. You said, "understand that what we have learned over the years would work or not work in one part of the world, will not necessarily work in another part of the world". What ingredients are going to have to be present for conflict resolution to begin in the Middle East?
When you say the Middle East do you mean the Iraq conflict or the Israeli conflict?
JS: Lets start with the Palestinian Israeli conflict.
I have an opinion about this. Believe it or not I think religion, Judaism and Islam carry the seeds for conflict resolution in this situation. The way I see it this conflict at its roots and basic causes is what I call a conflict of promises: the promised land to the Jews and then also the promise to exist for Muslims in the Quran to be successful and to prosper. So there is the promised land and the promise of prosperity
JS: And the British promises to both after each of the world wars.
That's right. What I find interesting is the two state solution, which is the dominant paradigm for peace in the Middle East. I do not support that notion at all. I am a supporter of a one state solution. As a matter of fact I am a supporter of all Jews coming back to that area of the world, not just Palestine, however you define it, but to come back to whatever they call the 'promised land'. I know that in some of their interpretations of what is the 'promised land' it goes all the way from the Nile in Egypt to the Euphrates in Iraq. I think that the Muslims and Arabs living in that part of the world hardly recognized that the Jews truly have a strong sentiment and attachment to that part of the world. I think we hardly learned to do that, we as Muslims and Arabs continuously denied them even that sense of attachment. Why? Because of the way they came to us has been very hostile and very scary because they were depriving us of our identity and our land and our sovereignty - our existence. That's why we have all these Palestinian refugees. But what I think we did not do well, is that we hardly gave them the impression we could include them and I think that's what we needed to do. The Zionists need to understand that they cannot come and drive people away from their homes, and Muslims and Arabs need to recognize Jew's sincere attachment to that part of the world.
JS: Does this view allow for a Jewish Political entity in the Middle East?
Entity, I'll say yes, but first I'll give you a contemporary example that nobody has been researching as yet but I think can give us a framework for how we can include the Jews in that part of the world. You know that at the same time the Zionist movement was bringing Jews to Palestine, prior, during and after the world wars, at the same time Armenians were fleeing their country in large numbers because of the genocide. Now of course many of them went to America and Europe, but a large number of them settled in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. I grew up in Egypt with so many neighbors who were Armenians. Armenians are different from Arabs and Muslims: religiously, linguistically, and ethically. However, they were welcomed in all those countries and they prospered and not just economically, they also have their own churches, their own schools and social clubs. In Lebanon there are three Armenian political parties. So what I want to say is Arabs and Muslims have the capacity to include others within their counties while giving those others the right to practice their own culture and religion and I think Arabs and Muslims could do the same with Jews, only if they don't feel the threat to their sovereignty and existence which I think is what Israel is doing. On the other hand I think the Jews would benefit to. Most Jews don't support the two state solution, it doesn't do it for them. A person who didn't believe in giving a state to the Palestinians killed Itsak Rabin. I think the hard work on the part of the Jews will be to accept that there are other people who have a legitimate claim to the same land. Yet those people have to accept that the Jews also have a sincere attachment to the land, at least religiously.
JS: Is that close to happening?
In the Quran, it is very clear in one of the verses that God is telling a story about the Jews, about Moses and his followers wandering in the desert for forty years, then Moses told his people let's go to the land God has promised us. We know that this is in the Quran; there is no question about it. So Muslims cannot casually dismiss the concept of the promised land. We need to explore ways of understanding these verses in the Quran and communicate that to the Jewish community worldwide and develop methods to attract them to come back in a way that is not threatening to us. Imagine if you can, and this argument is very hypothetical, if in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan we can develop policies and provisions that say "we would welcome any Jew who wants to come to this part of the world, being part of the promised land, to come and live, we'll give you citizenship; you want to buy a house, buy land - fine; you want to have your relatives come and visit, fine; do your work, live with your community, build your synagogue, have your own laws to govern your family life. But do not threaten a national entity. And come to any part, come to Syria, come to Egypt, come to Iraq, and come to Jordan and so on." You know what they're going to gain from this? The one thing Israel has never been able to give them, Peace and security, they would be secure, and there would be no violence, because there would be no need to do that. And such a solution would be based on a religious understanding of Gods promise to Jews and Muslims alike.
JS: Does democracy mean different things in Arab countries from Western ones?
No, I don't think in terms of the principles, that they are different. I think the nature of democracy is the same, though I could imagine it may appear different. But my concern, about democracy in general, is that democracy is a tool, and it is as good as the social, historical and cultural system around it. For example Hitler came to power via democracy. But because he fostered the racist and supremacist attitude, democracy could do nothing. And I think I am seeing the same thing happening to the Palestinians, in the name of a democratic state (Israel) there are so many bad things happening to them. Democracy is as good as the system its a part of.
JS: In the Middle East at the moment there are a lot of authoritarian regimes that won't want to see change occur. How are changes going to come about?
That's a long road. All I can say is that the people in the Arab world will have to make some sacrifices to gain democracy and take charge of their own lives
JS: Are we talking about 'people power' like the Philippines experience, mass demonstrations in the streets?
Yes, people have to be more activist in trying to adjust or change the status quo, because its so sad that the entire Arab world, maybe with the exception of Lebanon, is governed by a bunch of dictators, every single one of them, and even those who are not monarchs are preparing their own sons to succeed them. The Assad's have already done it in Syria, Mubarak is grooming his son, even Ghaddaffi is guilty of this.
JS: Is this a bad thing?
Of course, its not healthy, it's elitist. How come Mubarak ruling a country of 70 million people has decided his son is the right one to do a good job. What are his qualifications? Do we know if there are others who can compete? Because of lack of democracy we are going to see examples of such bad behavior and that's why I think people have to start to get more active insisting on real democracy - not the kind of democracy we have at present.
JS: Has the Arab news from al Jazeera improved on our understanding of what has been happening?
Yes it's been a healthy thing. I think it's going to change the way the whole Arab world looks like in the next 20 or 30 years
JS: How do you think Governments are going to respond to change, which is not directed by them? Are they going to be more repressive?
They are already doing that and other things; they have different methods, one of them is to repress they're own people. The other is too crack down on Al Jazeera every so often, shut down their offices , and kick out one of their correspondents. Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia among others have done it.
JS: Iraq did it yesterday
That's true. You know when you listen to Al-Jazeera, especially the talk shows; everyone who calls in is so upset with the Arab governments. I have never heard anyone saying something positive about his or her leaders.
JS: Sounds like talkback anywhere
JS: How is this combination of an increasingly well-informed and discontented Arab public with Governments unwilling to change, affect diplomacy in the Middle East?
Unfortunately I would have to say right now that diplomacy, especially in the new world order is dominated by realpolitik policies, by this I mean everyone is out just for themselves. Moral values and principles are not obvious as they used to be, at least at one point, and I think we will find that diplomacy will deteriorate into just playing into the hands of the powerful and will only be representative of their interests at the expense of everyone who cannot raise their voice. In the Arabic media I have seen lately, in the last three or four years a new motto to describe Arab diplomacy towards the United states and Israel, and its called the " diplomacy of helplessness," or " diplomacy of weakness".
JS: Do Arabs differentiate between the differing Middle Eastern policies in the West, particularly between Europe and the U.S?
I think the Arab world in general is very pleased with how the Europeans have come a long way since the 50's and 60's in their approach to the Arab Israeli conflict. I think you see much more support to the Arab cause and the Palestinians in Europe. Interestingly and sadly, at the same time, during this Iraqi crisis it was Germany and France that were leading the protest against the war and I remember once reading on the Al-Jazeera website there was a small blurb about European countries appealing to Arab Governments to support them on the EU position on Iraq, and I thought that was so sad that Arab governments needed a push from the Europeans to do something to stop a war against another Arab country.
JS: You see it a failure of leadership?
The Arabs are doing nothing and that is what I was describing as weakness and helplessness, while the Europeans are the ones taking up the Arab cause.
JS: As a conflict resolution expert how do you view the current 'Road Map' to peace laid out by the Western powers?
I think I have already discussed my belief in the shortcomings of the two state resolution. I think the road map is just another way of going towards that paradigm. At the same time it is also influenced by realpolitik policies and a Post September 11th world, where President Bush is looking at someone like Arial Sharon as a man of peace, that's what he called him, and I think this 'road map' would lead to a superficial peace, it is neither going to please Jews or Arabs, it is like drawing a line in the sand and this line is going to disappear very quickly and people will always be arguing that I deserve a little bit more and because of this the whole formula is never going to work. I think we need to go back to the notion of a bi-lateral single state.
JS: Is Israel ever going to accept this, the state of Israel seems a fait accompli and if they give that up they can see themselves being swallowed up and losing any control over Jewish destiny because they don't have the population numbers, they could never expect to be the party in power of any other political alternative to the current setup.
I think this is where the Arab world needs to develop an alternative that sound appealing to more Jews, as I was saying earlier Arabs need to work to develop an alternative to this distinct Jewish state. Arab politician's need to think about how to attract Jews to come to my country, live peacefully, feel secure, prosper have your own identity.
JS: So it wouldn't be power sharing, rather Jews would be welcomed as any other ethnic minority would.
Yes, come and live amongst us, have your own unique institutions as the Armenians do, live in peace but don't come and threaten our national identity and sovereignty. The concept of a tiny Jewish state does not satisfy either most Jews or Arabs. It leaves some Jews feeling alienated from the wider promised land, and its existence according to other Jewish groups is a violation of their religion. For Arabs and Muslims, no matter how tiny that Jewish state is, it is built at the expense of those Palestinians who have been in refugee camps and in Diaspora for half a century; this sense of injustice does not seem to go away. Embracing the concept of "Promised Land" by Jews and Muslims alike, and re-formulating its implementation in the ENTIRE Promise Land is the key to lasting peace.
JS: That's been done before in America
Yes, those poor North American Indians.
JS: There been much talk about the American Governments ultimate objectives in Iraq, whether it's to introduce democracy into the wider region or secure Iraqi oil or make Israel the main hegemon in the area. What do you think about these suggestions, obviously it's a tough act soothsaying but what's your opinion?
That's right you can only have your opinion but I have to say I am, like many other people in the world, skeptical about the real motives behind this invasion.
JS: Do you think Iraq would be a showcase for democracy? Might it start some reverse democratic domino effect?
I am very skeptical about such possibilities.
JS: As conflict resolution expert what advice would you give those involved in Iraq's reconstruction?
I think you have to be a realist, by this I mean, I might not be very happy with what's happening in Iraq. Though lets make it clear I am not in support of Saddam Hussein at all, he is just a ruthless dictator, like many others in the Middle East, and I will be happy to see him gone. However I am concerned about the process that has been used to change this regime and about the real motives. I have to say that in a few weeks there will be new a power in Baghdad, there will be American dominance and occupation of Iraq. There will be establishment of a new system and here people will have to say, 'ok I have to deal with this new reality' so my advice to those dealing with the reconstruction is to insist on certain principles such as "Iraqization of Institutions," departure of U.S. and British troops as soon as possible, inclusiveness, and to for Iraqis to have a clear say in how contracts for reconstruction will be assigned.
JS: What roles should the differing actors in the International community take in the reconstruction, ie. the US govt, Arab govts, Europe, The UN, NGO's?
I hope that Iraqis will be involved from the onset in such decisions. It is important to ensure that those Iraqis are credible in the eyes of their own people. This is the only way to demonstrate that the process is sincere and objective. Iraq has excellent well-informed, well-educated people who know what is best for their country and their people.
JS: What are the chances of America helping to foster a democratic government in Iraq, that then turns out to be unfriendly to Washington's worldview?
It all depends on how much U.S. policies will reflect a sincere commitment to Iraq's development. If actions, instead, confirm widespread fears that there are other ulterior motives, then we may expect negative reactions to Washington's policies.
JS: In your opinion has George Bush been straight with the public about America's reasons for invading Iraq?
I cannot judge his motives or reasons. But so many people in the entire world seemed to be skeptical about his reasons.
JS: Has September 11th changed the nature of conflict resolution when it is viewed on an international level?
It introduced new vocabulary (war on terrorism), new justifications for violence (pre-emptive war), and ignited debates over controversial paradigms (clash of civilizations). It also regressed us into zero-sum games ("you are either with us or against us").
JS: Is Osama Bin Laden dead?
JS: Is it possible to develop a theory of conflict resolution in the same way there is a theory of supply and demand for instance?
The field of conflict resolution is as vast as any humanistic field, including economics. It is possible to develop some frameworks, or theories, that explain, or has the potential to explain, certain aspects of conflicts. Theories of basic human needs and psychological changes during conflict, and frameworks for cultural influences on conflict sources, behavior and resolution, all are good examples of such efforts